by Tom Stratton

Greenwashing? When Vintage Meets Fast Fashion

The claims of sustainability and campaigns to encourage recycling a...
Greenwashing? When Vintage Meets Fast Fashion
I’ve already talked about fast fashion and its devastating impact on people in developing countries, our oceans, and our planet but I want to take a minute to talk about the ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ type labels that are thrown around by pretty much every major fast fashion retailer. The claims of sustainability and campaigns to encourage recycling are all the rage but how much of an effort are these companies making? We need to talk about greenwashing. 

Fast and Cheap

Fast fashion means cheap production and, therefore, cheap clothes. Who doesn’t want cheap clothes? But this comes at a price. Like I say, I’ve discussed this previously so won’t go into too much detail, but the effect on the environment is staggering. The main demographic for this fast fashion, I’m thinking particularly Primark, H&M et al., is the social media generation; the Gen Z lot who also, due to social media, are acutely aware of the climate crisis. As a result of this consumers are looking for ‘green’ alternatives whilst the retailers are claiming ‘green’ status. Those inverted commas are very much intentional.  
Look at the advert above: green! Nature! White ‘H&M Conscious’? How pure. The marketing campaign by H&M to appeal to the climate-conscious customer base isn’t exactly subtle is it? H&M claim they’re a sustainable company but what does sustainable actually mean? It’s these sort of vague terms (and good lawyers) that allow big businesses to abuse loop holes through language designed to be vague whilst still placating the minds of the more ethically conscious shopper. 

"Conscious & Sustainable"

H&M’s Conscious line states: ‘Each Conscious choice product contains at least 50% of more sustainable materials — like organic cotton or recycled polyester — but many contain a lot more than that. The only exception is recycled cotton, where we accept a level of at least 20%. The quality of recycled cotton makes it tricky to include a higher amount. But we’re hoping to change that! With new technological solutions and innovations, we’re continually working to make our range even more sustainable.’
A dictionary might tell you that ‘sustainable means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”’ but when applied to fashion and consumerism does that actually mean anything? There is no industry standard or instructions as to how a company might go about being sustainable. Nor is there a benchmark of sustainability. How much do you have to sustain something? How long does its have to be upheld? In reality it means very little but it does make consumers think the company must be doing something about the climate crisis they’re helping to create in the first place. ’50% of more sustainable materials’ is equally meaningless, especially when followed by ‘organic cotton or recycled polyester’. Using 50% cotton, organic or not, means that garment is now going to be made using mixed fibres which are very difficult to recycle due to the different fabrics not being easy to separate and break down. 

Ethical Buying

H&M operates a campaign that allows customers to donate unwanted clothes for ‘recycling’ after which they will receive a discount on their next purchase. That sounds like a good deal right? In reality, despite H&M claiming they break these down and create new clothes from them, only about 35% is actually recycled the rest goes back into the cycle adding to the crisis. The cynic in me wants to say that all it actually is, is one big marketing campaign. H&M (any fast fashion really, sorry for picking on you, H&M) are purely interested in making g money: fast fashion is big business. With the donation campaign they are employing marketing two-fold - those who are ethically conscious believe they are shopping ethically and doing something good for the environment whilst the receiving of discount guarantees those shoppers will come back again. Thus the cycle continues and big business make big money. 
It’s no coincidence then that the used clothing market has grown at 21x the rate of high street retail, with 2/3 of people stating they do or would buy second hand. It’s also no coincidence then that major retailers have started teaming up with vintage retailers and offering authentic vintage pieces alongside their own collections. Now there’s another even more sustainable side to the company which means attracting even more customers, many of who are buying authentically vintage for the first time. On the one hand it’s extra business and exposure for smaller vintage outlets but that comes with the fear that it somehow cheapens the whole ethos of shopping vintage whilst making the clothes themselves more expensive.

Fast Vintage Fashion

Urban Outfitters have Urban Renewal, Topshop, H&M, even Primark all have their own vintage sections. The question then is how these impact on the purely vintage traders. There is certainly a demographic who wouldn’t step foot in a vintage or charity shop but would happily buy the goods if they were in their favourite high street shop. Surely the more retailers that open vintage sections impact on the market for true vintage sellers, despite buying their goods from the vintage stores themselves - teaming up with smaller retailers - surely the market is still impacted as a whole as big corporations have the money and the scope to reach a wider demographic than smaller businesses.  
With the rise of sites such as Depop there is even more opportunity for vintage traders to make a living, especially as Depop has also combined their site with a social media type of interaction wherein you can like, share, and follow other users. Again there’s an argument against platforms like this due to the percentages they take from users and the algorithms used can make it difficult for sellers to grow their business. There is also the argument that opening it up to anyone with some old clothes in their wardrobe reduces quality on the market. At least though there is a dedicated site for those who wish to try and get into the vintage game: everyone has to start somewhere after all. 
In the vein of Depop, Pretty Little Thing have recently announce their own resale website wherein customers can resell their old clothes from PLT and elsewhere. Users of Pretty Little Thing are fans of fast fashion so you can only assume that anyone selling on the app will be of the same demographic. Fast fashion by its very nature is not built to last, it’s throwaway pieces of poor quality. To offer a platform to resell these cheap pieces, whilst they continue to produce more than is needed, will eventually have a wider impact on vintage fashion. 
Basically, what I’m saying is, stay in your lane fast fashion and we’ll stay in ours… unless you want to buy a couple of tees?